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  Bosnia Declares Sovereignty

By Laura Silber
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, October 16, 1991; Page A29

BELGRADE, OCT. 15 -- Bosnia-Hercegovina declared itself sovereign today, paving the way for secession and raising fears civil war may spread to the ethnically explosive republic in central Yugoslavia.

The leaders of Serbia and Croatia, meanwhile, met in Moscow with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and agreed tonight to an immediate cease-fire in the 16-week civil war in Croatia and the start of peace negotiations within a month.

The Bosnian declaration, called a "memorandum on sovereignty," was adopted by Muslim Slav and Croatian legislators after 73 Serbian delegates walked out of the Bosnian parliament at 1 a.m. The Serbian lawmakers called the move illegal, and their party leader said it would put Bosnia "on the same road to hell as Croatia and Slovenia," where fighting followed declarations of independence on June 25.

The legality of the declaration was unclear because it took place after Momcilo Krajisnik, the president of Bosnia's parliament and a Serb, declared the session closed.

Nonetheless, panic appeared to seize the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, after the declaration was announced, as residents rushed to buy stocks of salt and flour.

An eruption of violence in Bosnia, which borders Serbia and Croatia, has been averted so far by an apparent balance of fear among the republic's ethnically based political parties that bloodshed would be unstoppable if clashes broke out among Slav Muslims, Serbs and Croats, the republic's three main ethnic groups. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnia's 4.3 million citizens are believed armed.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, who heads the Muslim Party of Democratic Action, told parliament: "No one wants . . . a Yugoslavia which only has Serbs. . . . We want a Yugoslavia acceptable for all {ethnic groups}." Muslims, Bosnia's biggest ethnic group, make up 43 percent of the republic's population.

Radovan Karadzic, who heads Bosnia's Serbian Democratic Party, called the declaration illegal and warned the Croatian and Muslim Slav lawmakers that "we will stop you from carrying out constitutional violence against the Serbs." Karadzic said Bosnian independence is unacceptable to Serbs, who represent about one-third of the population and want to remain part of a Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federation. He warned that the declaration set Bosnia "on the same road to hell as Croatia and Slovenia."

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman arrived in Moscow today at Gorbachev's invitation in an effort to broker a peaceful settlement to the bloody conflict in Yugoslavia.

After a round of meetings at the Kremlin, the three men tonight announced a three-point communique that, in addition to the cease-fire and future talks, also asked that the United States, the Soviet Union and the European Community help organize the peace negotiations.

The two Yugoslav leaders were scheduled to meet with Russian republic President Boris Yeltsin on Wednesday.

Milosevic said he hopes the accord will help provide a "fair and peaceful solution" to the warfare in his country. "The Yugoslav crisis can be solved peacefully," the Serbian leader said.

Earlier, Gorbachev likened the situation in Yugoslavia to that of the Soviet Union, which "has to deal with similar problems, and this explains why recent events in Yugoslavia arouse anxiety and concern in our country," he said, according to the Tass news agency.

Gorbachev's spokesman, Andrei Grachev, said the Soviet leader had involved himself in the conflict to "lessen tension" in Europe and because Yugoslavia "is very close to us. The Soviet Union has experience and can give advice in the conflict."

Grachev called an agreement the "starting point of a stabilizing process. Of course, we don't think that such a visit can allow us to miraculously eliminate all tension immediately, but at least we would like to find some measures to lessen the tension."

Bosnia's declaration of sovereignty is the culmination of a simmering conflict between Muslims and Croats on one side and Serbs on the other. Muslim and Croatian leaders say Serbia wants to force Bosnia into a new "Greater Serbia." Bosnia's Serbs already have declared four autonomous regions that border Serbia, Montenegro, a close ally of Serbia, and Krajina, a self-proclaimed Serbian autonomous region in Croatia.

It was uncertain how the Serb-dominated federal army would react to Bosnia's declaration, but the federal defense minister, Veljko Kadijevic, held an emergency meeting with Bosnian President Izetbegovic in Sarajevo today.

"It is a matter of vital importance at this moment to prevent by joint efforts the spread of war conflicts from crisis areas {in Croatia} to Bosnia-Hercegovina," they said in a joint statement after the meeting, according to Reuter.

Correspondent Margaret Shapiro in Moscow contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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